There’s a beautiful moment after the end of one of Marvel’s Spider-Man’s many cinematic cutscenes. Aunt May has done a very selfless, kind, Aunt May thing, and Peter is reflecting on why he didn’t ask for her help sooner, and why he should have to burden her with helping him in the first place. He is, after all, Spider-Man. Gifted with superhuman strength, reflexes and instincts, he’s capable of working multiple jobs, moonlighting as a street-level crime fighter, and single-handedly defusing New York City’s supervillain-powered ticking time bombs. So why can’t he manage to pay his own rent?
It’s not only a good character moment, it’s entirely on-brand for one of Marvel’s most uniquely human superheroes. After the curtain falls on this unplayable portion of Spider-Man, it comes back up again with Spidey perched on a rooftop, ready for you to once again take command. In that moment — if you’re ready for it — the opportunity to play a part in this story of doing good will feel like a rare video game blessing.
As a superhero, Spider-Man, is as purely selfless as they come. He is not a wealthy man with warmongering baggage to redeem, or a man-made super soldier as wise as he is strong. Spider-Man is a kid who happens to be great. His problems are kid problems. He’s late for work a lot. He can’t keep a relationship together. He needs help paying rent. The joy of Spider-Man, the game, is that all of this shines through. Most games about powerful ass-kickers only come close to making you feel as if your on-screen avatar is also human by robbing you of equipment and weapons mid-game (and Marvel’s Spider-Man also plays this trick — in its own way). A game in which you play as someone both overwhelming powerful and capable, and yet endearingly vulnerable is startling and very much welcome. Unfortunately the moments when it strikes that perfect balance are all too rare.
Marvel’s Spider-Man feels like a fusion of an open-world beat-em-up video game and an episodic Spider-Man animated series. The first is a polished, if often frustrating experience with all of the bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern, AAA open-world game. Over and again, just when I thought I’d collected all the collectibles and overcome all of the challenges, more would appear, making the experience both deeper, and more varied. It also delivers the most sublime web-swinging that has ever appeared in a Spider-Man game. Simply navigating the world by swinging through alleyways, over traffic and above treetops, and then hurtling yourself into the air to swoop down, shoot a web, and swing again is so much fun I’ve hardly used the game’s “quick travel” system. With plenty of minor quests sprinkled throughout the game’s version of Manhattan, simply swinging around town doing good and picking up collectibles is an enjoyable experience in and of itself.
The only real knock against the video game is its unforgiving combat. Spider-Man is fast, agile, and intuitive, but he can’t take a lot of damage. His enemies, meanwhile, seem to churn up from a bottomless pit. How many henchmen can a supervillain actually have before undermining the economy of this cartoon New York City? And does it really take 12 guys to knock over a jewelry store?
I played through Marvel’s Spider-Man on the “Amazing” difficulty level, which is Spiderspeak for medium. There were moments when I found I’d slipped into a Spider-flow and could memorize every button combo and interpret Peter’s Spidey sense from the visual noise on-screen. When I was blocking, gyrating, webbing, punching, leaping, and racking up massive hit combos, fights were enthralling. Unfortunately I spent the vast majority of fights gritting my teeth and slogging my way through a fight to complete a mission or acquire one of the wide variety of tokens used as currency to upgrade my gear or acquire a new suit.
If you’re a perfectionist, or you simply enjoy brawlers, there’s a lot here for you. If you’re not quite at that level (and I certainly am not), the good news is the other half of Marvel’s Spider-Man also brings the goods.
Spider-Man’s more than 50-year history would be impossible to encapsulate into one representation of his character and this game doesn’t bother trying. It is a modern take on the web-slinger, but one that retains the absolute core of the character. He is naive, hapless, strong, vulnerable, brave beyond measure, and deeply empathetic. He is a young man with extraordinary abilities in a world that is at once intimately familiar to him and hopelessly beyond his depth. He is also now an electronics expert, an expert biologist, and a social media using, phone-obsessed 20-something who manages to nearly effortlessly balance the demands of a busy social life with being a friendly neighborhood crime fighter.
Spider-Man, in other words, is a Millennial superhero. By peppering the character’s traditional traits with the trappings of modern-day young adulthood, Insomniac, Marvel, and Sony have created what is quite possibly Spider-Man in his purest form. He helps replace the limbs of soldiers injured in modern wars. He helps feed and shelter the homeless displaced by runaway capitalism. He even — I am absolutely serious — helps repair the water and air damaged by industrial pollution and irresponsible waste disposal. The vast majority of this Spider-Man’s energies, in fact, are directed at undoing the evils perpetrated by older generations. Although the game is very clearly called Spider-Man, Peter Parker’s female best friend and POC apprentice both have significant parts to play. (And I do mean “play.”) There is even a moment midway through the game when a prominent character turns to Spider-Man and says, “Save the city from our mistakes.” That this man is a scientist older than Peter Parker who has helped create a major catastrophe through avarice and greed is the head of the hammer driving the point home like a stake through the heart of the white Baby Boomer patriarchy.
Much like Peter Parker, however, Marvel’s Spider-Man struggles to resolve the two halves of its whole. The game is often at its best when it’s not even trying. The nearly endless collecting quests and side missions frequently provide the most sublime experiences of inhabiting the character of Spider-Man while the main mission’s climactic battles royale feel more like interactive Disney rides. Occasional button presses forward the action, but Spidey’s most exciting takedowns and stunts are pure spectacle, and not in a bad way. In the first several hours I found myself wishing the cinematic set-up would stop interfering and let me play. At the end of each of its major plot points, I wished that the game would stop asking me to participate and simply tell the story.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is a modern, AAA blockbuster video game in every possible sense. It is highly polished, intricately designed, near-flawlessly produced and intelligently scaffolded. And it has achieved for the character of Spider-Man what very few games about comic book heroes accomplish: creating an experience both purely focused on the character and broad enough to have mass appeal. It will, without a doubt, stand for some time as the definitive Spider-Man video game.